It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia
Lucky number 13 was a season of growth and maturation for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and surprisingly, it’s been an organic, unobtrusive process for a show with a formula rooted in stasis and immaturity.
To the naked eye, the freedom to be mean, stupid, and insensitive looked awfully integral to the show’s comic modus operandi, but the writing staff under executive producer Megan Ganz has steered the Paddy’s gang toward their idiotic version of enlightenment. They reckoned with their lack of diversity in the season premiere, took two episodes to focus on feminist concerns, and even managed an intelligent, respectful perspective on the ludicrous debate over transphobic bathroom bills. Satire has always formed the central pillar of this show. It’s just that the writers have begun to be more purposeful, thoughtful, and merciful about who they make the butt of their jokes, and how.
On a hot streak of tolerance, the show has set its sights on its white whale of tricky material: Mac’s ever-present, roiling homosexuality. What began as a running gag in the basest register — heh, heh, Mac’s big and strong but he also likes boys, heh — gradually blossomed into something that demanded to be taken seriously. Last year’s “Hero or Hate Crime” finally acknowledged the elephant in the room in the most Paddy’s fashion conceivable, forcing a declaration of gay identity out of Mac as a means of laying claim to a hotly contested scratch-off lottery ticket. Lest we think the writers would sort that out and file the matter away, they’ve returned to give Mac his day in earnest.
To paraphrase the ad copy from the Queer Eye reboot, the fight for tolerance has been succeeded by the fight for acceptance. More than mere visibility, “Mac Finds His Pride” argues for beauty, that the majesty of a man embracing his love for men can move even the most calloused bigot. The final scene, which I feel secure in describing as Phoenix-level captivating, arrives at the cold realization that some people simply cannot be swayed from their prejudices by any appeals to reason or emotion.
But the corollary to this idea encouragingly suggests that other people can. All year long, critic-types have bickered about art’s efficacy in changing real minds in the real world, and this half-hour tacitly takes a measured middle ground. In the episode’s breathtaking conclusion, Mac makes an impassioned plea to his father that ultimately falls on deaf ears. But Frank, the show’s locus of un-PC-ness, hears him and finds himself changed. Someone who still uses the word “fairies” can recognize humanity when it’s placed on a pedestal in front of him. So while it’s not a cure-all, maybe art could still be a cure-some. That Sundance indie film about one marginalized person’s struggle against such-and-such isn’t going to inspire a change of heart in Donald Trump, but it might dislodge something in someone out there, so at the very least, it’s worth a shot.
True to form, the Paddy’s crew first adopts a new open-mindedness with opportunistic intentions. The bar has landed a clutch spot in Philadelphia’s Pride parade, and for their centerpiece, they want Mac to dance his hunky self around in an on-float shower. But without any semblance of community or even selfhood as a gay man, Mac doesn’t feel a whole lot of pride to celebrate. Having drawn the short straw, it falls to Frank to whisk him away on an odyssey of discovery that’s at first reminiscent of the search for the ever-elusive meaning of Christmas, except with BDSM and drag queens. As It’s Always Sunny has gradually evolved, it’s taken great pains to remain in touch with its cynical streak, and that manifests here with the early scenes portraying homosexuality in the same light as the show does heterosexuality: as something strange, embarrassing, and kind of terrifying. Ill-fated stops at a bondage club and a drag brunch don’t cower before either culture as self-evidently freakish, though the sight of Cricket in a leather daddy outfit could linger for years to come. Everybody else appears to be having a fine time, which only amplifies Mac’s loneliness.
He achieves inner solace only during the final sequence, an interpretive dance scored to Sigur Rós and drenched in rain. When watching It’s Always Sunny, the viewer is by default anticipating a joke at every turn, and so we spend the first few minutes of this elaborate routine waiting for the punch line. For a moment, it seems like the fact that his partner’s a woman might be the punch line. But the scene doesn’t break. There’s no turn making light of Mac’s performance. It is solely what it is, far and away the series’s most open display of earnestness.
Mac concludes the episode triumphant, soaked, and proud. As in last season’s finale, the tone slides away from comedy toward a register with more dramatic gravitas. Parts of Mac can still be laughed at, and we can rest assured that his vanity, his insecurity, and his unsavory dildo-bike will be fodder for plenty of ridicule in the impending 14th season. For the duration of his dance, however, Mac earns an irony-free respect. Those attached to the blanket nihilism of the series’s early seasons may blanch at such a sentimental display, but in a season increasingly willing to shed its sense of humor to make a point, this scene fits as a wordless coda.
Mac and Dee have gotten most of the play time in this season, each of their storylines reestablishing humanity once in danger of being erased by caricature. They’re still put through the wringer on a regular basis, but as more three-dimensional people, making the humiliation that much more potent. It’s hardly a revelation that humanism makes for a winning strategy in TV writers’ rooms, but to see this principle put into practice around Paddy’s has been unpredictable and satisfying. In season 14, the show’s progress ought to continue not only onward, but inward.
Assorted Notes & Questions:
• Frank and Mac each get one lacerating one-liner against the other. Mac, telling it as it is: “Frank, you’re a 75-year-old man with a face that looks like hamburger meat.” Frank, appraising Mac’s fraught relationship to his own religion and sexual orientation: “You’re dancing, and it’s with a hot chick who’s God? The Catholics really fucked you up.”
• Taking a step back to consider the last ten weeks as a whole, number 13 has been the show’s best season in a long while, and covering it from week to week has been a real treat. It’s bracing to see living proof that a show getting long in the tooth can still revive itself and try something new. Adapting to Dennis’s absence (he’s nowhere to be seen in this episode) forced innovation, both in characterization and storytelling. It’s Always Sunny deserves to be praised specifically because it is not a late-phase season of The Simpsons; it maps out and executes arc-based progress to establish urgent stakes. In short, it showed us that the Gang is still worth caring about. Have a lovely hiatus, I hope to see you all back here next year, and here’s hoping another Philadelphia sports franchise wins its championship.